Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Graduate Student Oath

 
The Institute of Medical Studies (IMS) at the University of Toronto is a large department with many graduate students. Many of them are M.D.s doing clinical research.

The department has instituted a graduate student oath that beginning graduate students recite at their first meeting. The idea is to teach students the value of social and moral responsibilities. Beginning graduate students also have to take a mandatory seminar course on ethics.

The oath is explained and reproduced in this week's issue of science magazine in an article by Davis et al. (2008). Here it is.
"I, [NAME], have entered the serious pursuit of new knowledge as a member of the community of graduate students at the University of Toronto.

"I declare the following:

"Pride: I solemnly declare my pride in belonging to the international community of research scholars.

"Integrity: I promise never to allow financial gain, competitiveness, or ambition cloud my judgment in the conduct of ethical research and scholarship.

"Pursuit: I will pursue knowledge and create knowledge for the greater good, but never to the detriment of colleagues, supervisors, research subjects or the international community of scholars of which I am now a member.

"By pronouncing this Graduate Student Oath, I affirm my commitment to professional conduct and to abide by the principles of ethical conduct and research policies as set out by the University of Toronto."
What do you think? Is this something that all departments should consider?


Davis, K.D., Seeman, M.V., Chapman, J. and Rotstein, O.D. (2008) A Graduate Student Oath. Science 320:1587-1588. [DOI: 10.1126/science.320.5883.1587b]

15 comments :

  1. Hmm...do the professors have to take it too?

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  2. "Pride: I solemnly declare my pride in belonging to the international community of research scholars"

    What does that have to do with anything? I am not so sure I'm proud of the "international community of research scholars". What's that you guys have going on there, something like masonry? water buffalos?

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  3. I'm not sure about the "pride" part, but I see where they're coming from. I think this oath could use a little revision, but all in all, I like the idea, and I think it would be something useful for other graduate programs to consider adopting.

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  4. I think a more concrete list of promises would also help. Something like, "I promise never to go to dinner or Maple Leafs games with representatives from pharmaceutical companies."

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  5. @ Derek - i don't know whether they do or not, but any true academic would. I would certainly (i'm a prof).

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  6. As if grad students don't have enough hoops to jump through...

    Why not spend more time and effort to ensure that students are properly mentored, are paid a fair stipend, aren't abused or exploited, are able to graduate in a reasonable amount of time, and given due credit for work done?

    Nope. Can't have that. Instead you've got ever more song-and-dance garbage that a twelve year old would find patronizing. Give me a break.

    I'm with Derek. PI's first.

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  7. I don't really understand oaths.

    Can you actually make somebody believe in something just by making them say it out in an official manner?

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  8. Lim Leng Hiong asks,

    Can you actually make somebody believe in something just by making them say it out in an official manner?

    No. What you do is eliminate the possibility that someone will do something bad and then claim they they didn't know any better.

    It's what's behind the concept of an Honor Code. Today, the idea that a student would make an open pledge to be honest seems bizarre. Most seem to think that such a pledge is completely unnecessary, presumably because they think that most students behave honorably all the time.

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  9. derekjames asks,

    Hmm...do the professors have to take it too?

    No, they don't.

    If students think this is a good idea but only if faculty takes a similar oath then I would be in favor of that.

    Faculty at the University of Toronto are legally bound by a set of policies on behavior. They include things like the "Code of Behavior on Academic Matters," "Conflict of Interest," "Policy on Ethical Conduct in Research," and many others.

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  10. nomes says,

    I think a more concrete list of promises would also help. Something like, "I promise never to go to dinner or Maple Leafs games with representatives from pharmaceutical companies."

    My next door neighbor works for a pharmaceutical company. Is it OK to go over to her backyard for a BBQ? :-)

    When my publisher comes to town is it OK if he buys me lunch? Is it more ethical for me to pay for his meal in the cafetreria?

    Life is a little more complicated than you think but I agree with the sentiment behind your statement. Pharmaceutical companies have an enormous negative influence on research in the medical sciences and I bet that many of the graduate students who take this oath will not live up to it.

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  11. I'm not a big fan of oaths, particularly for students when part of their eduction is to instill the values that (apparently) they are expected to profess. This thing is creepy and very religion-like. What's the point?

    "Pursuit: I will pursue knowledge and create knowledge for the greater good, but never to the detriment of colleagues, supervisors, research subjects or the international community of scholars of which I am now a member."

    I think I know what you are getting at (or maybe I don't), but this is poorly worded at best. Seems to me if you "create knowledge for the greater good" it may sometimes turn out that the knowledge you create results in a detriment to a colleague, a supervisor, the international community, and perhaps even (depending on how "detriment" is defined) to research subjects. If so, tough luck for them.

    And even with respect all but the research subjects, there are many situations I can imagine where the act of "pursuing" knowledge could be detrimental to others, but not unethical.

    I also agree with the "pride" thing commented on above. It smacks of indoctrination, making one profess something they might not have at that time, and might never have. Seems kind of pointless and authoritarian. Pride is a state of mind. (Substitute "happy" for pride, and see how silly it seems.) They're students: teach them that belonging to the international community is something to be proud of, and then hope that they are.

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  12. Larry said:

    "No. What you do is eliminate the possibility that someone will do something bad and then claim they they didn't know any better."

    Not sure if an oath is more effective than a signed code-of-ethics form for this purpose. What do you think?

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  13. I like the course idea. I don't like oaths.

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  14. The words 'total waste of time' waft through my brain. Unethical behaviour will not be dissuaded merely by making students promise not to. It's sort of like making people promise not to steal wallets. I don't think that'd work on muggers. It doesn't matter how many stacks of bibles you make them swear on, people who are inclined to do an action will be just as likely*. I'm fairly sure that most people know plagiarism, etc is wrong, and will get them in trouble, so it won't call it to their attention.

    Waste of time. Waste of words.

    *I say that without a shred of evidence. Sounds like a thesis for a Social Psychology grad student.

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  15. I think its worthless.

    The bulk of "unethical" behavior in grad school is committed by PIs who exploit their students and postdocs. Long hours, a joke of a stipend, no discernible completion date ever given, and more often then not, nothing that resembles mentorship. And if you're at my school you can also disregard receiving anything like career development advice or counseling.

    @nomes: I would encourage more pharmaceutical companies to get involved with grad students. At least that way students would know that they have options after graduation other than eternal post-doc.

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